Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

It was a sign of the times, prominently hung next to the security entrance to the gates at San Francisco International Airport. In large, urgent letters it reminded passengers that threatening, interfering with or otherwise disturbing airline personnel is a felony punishable by fines, jail time or both.

It used to be all airlines worried about were guns and bombs. These days, passengers themselves are the exploding weapons.

I have little hope that sober warnings will do much to stem the tide of air rage, which is a crime of passion—and never more so than in this summer of air-travel hell, when inclement weather, increased air traffic and packed planes have conspired to bring the airline industry to the brink of dysfunction.

Virgin’s Richard Branson is given credit for first having the insight that air travel is an experience, not mere transportation. How right he was. To anyone stuck waiting for a delayed flight that is ultimately canceled, air travel feels nothing like transportation. It is an experience—a bad one.

Delays aren’t the only thing that makes air travel unpleasant. Consider the average on-time flight. The adventure begins at the gate with the announcement that the flight is overbooked, followed by a cordial invitation to passengers to give up their seats in exchange for free vouchers for another flight—as if subjecting oneself to another travel ordeal were a reward.

Then, if you survive the scramble for carry-on luggage space and can endure the cramped seats, there’s all that microbe-laden recirculated air whose effects won’t be known until four days hence, when you come down with a fever and a sore throat. For this the airlines have raised ticket prices three times in recent months. And is it my imagination or are the pretzel bags smaller?

Perhaps I am too harsh. Flying is remarkably safe and has remained so even as the number of flights has soared. It is a miracle to be able to traverse a continent in less than six hours, even if we are so accustomed to it we no longer notice. How big a tragedy is it to cool one’s heels in an airport Starbucks compared to, say, the fate of the Donner Party? Maybe we should put things in perspective.

Yet there is something about breathing stale air and your fellow passengers’ sweat while sitting on the tarmac that doesn’t lend itself to philosophical reflection.

With no relief in sight, consumers will have to rely on their miraculous powers to adapt. Accustomed to crossing continents and oceans in five or six hours instead of weeks or months, surely we can deal with it taking 10 hours—as long as that’s in line with our expectations.

I became aware of this adaptive trait in myself on my recent San Francisco trip—flying United Air lines. The outbound flight arrived 25 minutes late. On the return, we were 70 minutes behind schedule. I was thrilled! My expectations were so low that simply getting off the ground was a major victory. To land during the same daypart as was scheduled seemed utter good fortune. I was a happy customer.

Now I am planning a fall weekend visit to friends in Milwaukee. In the best of all possible worlds I’d take the flight scheduled to land at 8 p.m. Friday, the time I actually want to arrive. But I’m no sucker. A few thunderboomers over Gary, Ind., caused by a butterfly flapping its wings in Malaysia and we’re looking at 1 a.m. The obvious choice is the flight due in at—wink, wink—4:30 p.m. I have adapted.

A 15-minute delay may still count as a late arrival in the FAA logs, but consumers know better. These days a flight that lands within 90 minutes of the schedule is essentially “on time.”

Now if only the airlines would work with consumers’ ability to adapt instead of wallowing in denial. It wouldn’t get us moving any faster, but it would be less wearing emotionally.

Face it, the poor souls at the airline service desks have no clue when a plane is leaving anyway, so they might as well make it up—and make it sound bad as possible. Tell passengers a flight will leave an hour late and it takes off in two, they’re outraged. Tell them to expect a three-hour delay and get them airborne in two, they’re grateful.

Alas, I am not convinced the airlines will get it. It seems too much to expect from management geniuses who can’t even figure out that when air travel is crowded, uncomfortable and routinely late, it makes good business sense to increase the pretzel rations, not shrink them.